He told me he'd ring me. He didn't.
"This is my surprised voice," said Kelly.
Kelly works in software and spends her life sniffing round the tricky bits in manuals. And sniffing round the tricky bits of my dating life, too. She's my sister. It's her job.
"Maybe my answerphone's broken?"
"Yeah, right," she said.
I sighed. "Maybe I should get a telesales script for dating."
When you work in telephone sales they give you a script. You ask each person question 1 and then, depending on whether they say yes or no, you ask question 2a or question 2b, and so on. If they say no, you keep asking questions until they say yes to something. Then you've got them, like a fish on a hook.
"A dating script?" said Kelly, sounding dubious.
"Yeah, you know. 'This special date offer includes dinner at my apartment and the potential for oral sex on my couch afterwards. Would that be something you are interested in?' And then if they say no you flip to page two and you ask them if it's the dinner or the oral sex that they have the problem with."
"Yeah, Jenna, that might help," Kelly said, like it wasn't a joke.
I hung up and went back to making my telesales calls.
My 34th call was answered by a teenage girl.
"Could I speak to a parent or guardian?" I said.
"Because if you take up the offer there's a contract to sign, and persons under eighteen—"
"I'm under eighteen but I've signed contracts before."
"This new phone company. All my calls are free now. And there's tons of cool features."
"Really? Is the answerphone any good?"
"It's the best."
"So what do you have to do to get this deal?" I was a little worried it might involve something seedy.
"I'm a pilot customer. I just have to give them feedback on their system. They're looking for other pilot customers, you know. And it's all free. Would that be something you are interested in?"
"I guess so. Yes."
Damn, she was good.
I rang the number she gave me.
The company was called Palavatar.
The woman who answered my call confirmed that all my phone usage would be absolutely free. She added that Palavatar also offered additional free features such as the very latest in neural network and genetic algorithm communications technology and—
"What's the answerphone like?"
"It's the best."
"Done deal," I said.
"It will take a few hours before your new Palavatar features take effect," she said.
She wished me a nice day and said the contract would be in the post.
As an afterthought I asked her if she would be interested in a subscription to one of our fine range of magazine titles including—
But she'd hung up.
My mother rang then and we continued our argument about whether or not I would be going down to Cornwall for Cousin Steven's wedding. My answer was a definite no, I wouldn't be, as I couldn't stand Cousin Steven, and my mother's answer was a definite yes, I would be, and who was I to be all high and mighty?
We haggled each other down to a we'll see.
I hung up, and phoned Kelly, who had also had the Mother Treatment, so we had a postmortem and tried to encourage each other not to cave in.
When I hung up from talking to Kelly the phone made a weird brring sound that I hadn't heard before.
"This is Palavatar Message Minder," said the voice when I picked up. "You have one new message. Press One to hear your message."
It was mother. Another reason I should go to Cousin Steven's wedding was because his wife might be able to get me a job with her firm.
And then Palavatar again: "Press One to repeat the message. Press Two to return the call. Or why not try our exclusive feature: press Three to generate a fully automated real-time reply, using the very latest in neural network and genetic algorithm technology."
I couldn't resist. I pressed Three.
"Please note," the synthesised voice told me, "that during the automatically generated call anything you say in person will not be audible to the other caller. To cancel the automated reply at any time, press Zero. The call will now commence."
I listened to the staccato beeps as Palavatar dialled my mother's number. After a short pause, my mother picked up.
"Hello?" she said.
Palavatar did their techno-magic and I heard a very uncanny impression of my voice saying "Mother, give it a rest, okay? If I go to Steven's wedding it will be because the scenery will be great, not because I'm crawling on my knees for a job."
The Palavatar version of me certainly didn't back down too easily.
"Did I say anything about crawling?" said my mother. "Did I?"
"Look, I've got to go," said Palavatar-me. "I've got a dinner and oral sex date."
There was a very long pause on the other end, during which I nearly swallowed my tongue in embarrassment.
"Jenna, are you high?" said my mother, eventually.
I pressed buttons wildly because I'd forgotten which one terminated the automatically generated call. It was Zero, I finally discovered.
But by then Mother had hung up.
The phone rang. It was Palavatar again, wanting feedback on the auto-call service. There were options, lots of options, to choose from: did I think the call content was too stilted, too humorous, too weather-based, not weather-based enough? I pressed Nine for further category options, and settled on Seven: "the content of the call was too informal." That produced nine more options, and I pressed Four to agree that "the sexual or profane content of the automatic call was inappropriate."
The Palavatar system thanked me for my feedback.
I hung up and glared at the phone.
Kelly rang five minutes later. "Mother said you said were going to have oral pleasure—her words—after dinner. Do you think she's getting Alzheimer's?"
"No, it's . . . well, it's a long story."
"Believe me, for this one I've got as long as it takes."
Then a beep and the Palavatar-lady asked me if I wished to go to automatic. I pressed Two for no.
"Your manually controlled call is being continued," she said.
So I started telling Kelly the story. "See, I got this offer from a phone company and—"
The line buzzed static for a few seconds. Then the lady from Palavatar came back on. "Warning, your Palavatar pilot customer status is commercially confidential. Any communication about Palavatar via speech, text, or other symbolic medium is a breach of contract and may result in prosecution. Your call has been terminated."
Well, that told me.
Kelly rang me back, and this time I decided what the hell, let Palavatar sort it out, so I went to auto-reply when they offered me the option.
"You were just telling me about oral pleasure," said Kelly.
"Right," said Palavatar-me. "Except I was talking about ice cream, not, you know, anything amorous."
Hey, nice lie!
"Amorous?!" said Kelly. "Since when do you use that word?"
Palavatar-me ignored her: "Look, I better give mother a call to explain."
So I did—or Palavatar did, after a little prologue in which the synthesised lady told me that as I had been unhappy with my previous auto-call to this number I could select a special tone-and-content setting. They gave me a list of possibles. I pressed Six, for respectful.
"Jenna, you're being nice to me," said my mother doubtfully, a few minutes into the call.
"I just wanted to say I loved you," said Palavatar-me.
"How lovely," said my mother.
And this time when the line went dead I pressed One to say I was "happy or very happy" with the outcome of the call.
Welcome to the cool new future.
Of course, I still talked to Kelly manually. Sometimes. But sometimes it was easier just to let Palavatar do the talking. Palavatar-me was so much more patient. When Kelly said that I didn't get out enough, Palavatar-me didn't rise to the bait. Instead, Palavatar asked her if she happened to know where all the nice straight men were.
"Um. Try the telephone dating lines," said Kelly.
"No, of course not. They're sleaze central."
But what did Kelly know? She'd been single for a million years.
So I set Palavatar-me loose on the dating lines.
In two hours it had garnered the home telephone numbers of a surprisingly large number of enchanted and hopefully highly eligible male callers. I sat and real-me talked to my prospective dates.
Oh my. It was a treasure trove of horror men.
Apart from one.
His name was Ray, and he had it all. Warm voice, good sense of humour. No ties.
I went for dinner with him, and had a very nice time. Okay, so he didn't look like a movie star, but then again, neither do I.
Anyway, after the dinner with Ray I took a cab home alone, in the spirit of not hurrying things. Of course, when I got back to my apartment I wished that I had hurried things, so I real-me phoned him at midnight, from my cell phone, from bed.
"What are you thinking?" I said, huskily.
"What are you wearing?" Ray said, suddenly somewhat husky himself.
So I described what I was wearing, and what I was thinking, and what I was doing, and what I was thinking of doing.
And then Palavatar interrupted.
"This conversation violates your custom-set parameters on sexual frankness or profanity. Press One to retain those custom-set parameters. Press Two to relax those parameters temporarily. Press Three to allow full sexual and profane content."
I pressed Three, which whisked me into accepting lots of options about tone frankness and all-call permanence of settings and other stuff that I didn't pay attention to, what with Ray waiting.
"I'm back," I said, when I'd pressed Three enough times to be allowed back to manual.
"Mmmmm," he said.
And that was the start of a very nice conversation.
It was so nice that I asked him whether he'd like to come to my apartment, like, now.
I wanted to see what sex was like with Ray in real-land, not telephone-land.
He came round.
Sex, sadly, wasn't nearly as good in real-land. It was so much better when I was calling him on manual.
But I didn't get a chance to tell him that. When he'd finished—which, incidentally, was well before I had—he fell straight asleep.
On waking the next morning it took me five seconds to work out who the man beside me was, one second to remember why I didn't want to see him again, and a depressing few minutes while I gathered he wasn't going to wake up any time soon. So I lay there, idly thinking about love and life and the Palavatar system, and how last night I'd changed—
"—the parameters!!!" I screamed, as I realised all at once what I'd done by pressing option Three too many times the night before.
"Where!?!" shouted Ray, sitting bolt upright.
I ignored him and ran to the other room. I picked up the phone and listened to a few seconds of Palavatar-me talking to a telephone sales person who was trying to sell me life insurance.
Palavatar-me was making these breathy little moan-of-appreciation things that I thought I recognised from my call with Ray the night before.
I got through to my Palavatar options and changed them all to super-respectful, without even a hint of anything indecorous.
That took care of the future.
But what about the recent past? I dreaded finding out how many messages I had.
I imagined horrified messages from my mother, my sister, and one from the people in white coats telling me they were coming to take me away.
I dialled my answerphone.
"You have no new messages," said Palavatar.
I swore a lot in gratitude at the synthesised tidings, and then I caught sight of myself in the mirror. Stark naked, raving at the phone.
Ray stuck his head round the door, took one look, and didn't have to be told that this was not the moment for a glowing debriefing on his performance last night. He left in a hurry, with a Michael-Douglas-begins-to-see-Glenn-Close-in-a-new-light sort of expression.
He left in such a hurry that he forgot his cell phone.
Which was handy, as there was still the problem of incoming calls that might have been answered by Palavatar-me.
I rang mother. Luckily, she hadn't called.
Unluckily, Kelly had.
"Jenna, what you suggested earlier was illegal," she said, when I got through to her. "I'm your sister."
"Listen, I need to tell you a bunch of stuff. My phone's been, er, hacked. Yes, hacked. It wasn't me that you spoke to."
And then I told her the whole story, from the beginning. I was using Ray's cell phone, so the synthesised lady couldn't touch me.
I told Kelly about Palavatar-me and all those dreaded option Threes I'd pressed. I told her about phone sex and auto-call. I told her everything.
"But that's terrible!" she said, at the end of the story.
"I know, think of it—if mother had phoned and I'd done all that moaning to her! She'd have had me committed!"
"No, not the sex stuff. It's the other stuff," she said. "It's the you stuff! You used the auto-call on me and I didn't notice that I wasn't talking to you! You realise what this means?"
"It means you're not a very complex system. That's horrible!"
"I am complex too," I said.
"If I can't tell the real-you from the Palavatar-you then that means you're no more complicated than the Palavatar programming code. It's called the Turing Test. It's sort of backwards, in this case, but—look, the point is that the algorithms of some shady telecoms company captured you! They captured your whole being, and it even fooled me, your sister. What does that say about your personality, huh?"
"What does that say about your listening skills? Huh?" I said.
"Hang on, let me think for a minute."
I sat and listened to the cogs whirr.
When she came back she was breathless with excitement. "Oh my God, listen! We're all basically digital systems, at the neuronal level. But just because the neuronal permutations are supermassive doesn't mean that there aren't stereotyped behaviours, which are equivalent to attractors in phase space!"
I tried to sound enthusiastic, but Kelly always gets too technical too fast.
"God, it's beautiful. You could draw a map in a zillion dimensions and we'd all cluster in this sort of hyperdimensional—"
"Kelly, focus! What do I do from now on? I want to be a complex system!"
"Oh," she said, reluctantly coming back to earth. She always preferred theory to practice. "Well, I guess you have to start living on your terms, not theirs. When offered a list of options, press Ten on your telephone keypad," she said.
"There is no Ten on the telephone keypad," I said.
"Exactly! Get out of the option tree! Think blue sky!"
"I hate flying, you know that."
"Do anything!" she said. "Do everything you've never wanted to do and see if you like it."
"Don't ask me, think for yourself. That's the whole point. Look, do you mind if I write up the hyperdimensional thing? God, it's beautiful."
My sister always had the strangest taste.
But I took her advice.
I severed my Palavatar contract and for the next few weeks I tried to metaphorically press Ten a lot. I tried kickboxing, which was fun, and pottery, which wasn't. I tried to listen to jazz, but it reminded me of cats fighting so I turned it off. I have a cat allergy you wouldn't believe.
I went a whole day without television. Boy did the time pass slowly.
And I even went to Cousin Steven's wedding. The scenery was great.
But as for the rest . . . well, it was the final straw.
So I phoned Kelly, when I came back from Cornwall.
"Look," I said. "It's not working. I still want to watch old episodes of Friends. I still want to—"
"Jenna, listen!" she said. "It's okay! I've realised you can't get out of the option tree—no one can. If you try to be really really different, like say you get the faces of astronauts tattooed on your butt, then you just end up in the 'really really different' category of people, along with golf-cart enthusiasts and Klingon translators. So whatever you do, you're doomed to be in one herd or another."
"Aw," I said. "Cheer me up why don't you."
"But this is the great thing," she said. "You will always be a bit different!"
"Because now you're a psycho-socio-mathematical Thing!"
I told her that didn't sound so good.
"But it is! It's the Jenna Set! I wrote an article on all this and named a hyperdimensional point-set after you. I'll send you a copy of the journal article if you want."
"Yeah?" I said, wondering if I should feel honoured or cheapened.
"Jenna, it's a great honour. Your name will live forever!"
"Aw," I said, trying to sound humble.
But though Kelly had described a hyperdimensional point set—and named it after me—she didn't have any luck tracking down the people behind Palavatar.
She wanted to credit them in her article, but they had disappeared. All the customer service numbers were disconnected, and Google drew a blank on Palavatar apart from a part-word match in some Finnish pdf files. But Kelly said every word ever gets a partial match in Finnish pdf files. It's that kind of language.
So she asked around among her hacker friends, to see if they'd heard any rumours.
The rumour with the most substance was that Palavatar was all a school-science-project-slash-hacker-joke, created by this girl genius called Abbie. According to the rumour, there was only ever one pilot customer.
Abbie was no longer to be found, and everything had been shut down.
But then I got an email, from Palavatar.
Hope I didn't mess up your life.
Want to do coffee?
I hit Reply.
We fixed a time and place.
When I got to the coffee shop there was a teenage girl sitting by the window, looking like she was waiting for someone.
Such youth, such genius.
"Abbie?" I said.
"Uh, no," she said.
I waited for her to explain that Abbie was her hacker name and that her real name was Helen or something, but she didn't. She just stared at me. "Uh, get out of my face," she said.
"You're nothing to do with Palavatar?"
"My Dad's a policeman," she said. "Want me to call him?"
Then there was a cough behind me. I turned round. A super skinny guy with a programmer's tan was standing there.
"Jenna, I'm Abbie," he said.
"You sure?" I said. "The grapevine said you were a—"
"That was my cover. Can I buy you a coffee?"
I thought about it.
What if he spiked my drink and I woke up in a room with wall-to-wall UNIX manuals?
Well, it would remind me of my sister's place, that's what.
So I said yes.
"Great!" he said, too enthusiastically.
And then I had a nasty thought: was I on an inadvertent date?
"Look, Abbie, I should tell you I'm taken," I lied.
He looked horrified. "Not you. I'm not interested in you."
Then he tried to dig himself out of the hole. "I mean, I did want to meet you, sure. But I was hoping you would put in a word for me. With, you know . . ."
He gave me the look that Kelly gives me when I'm missing something obvious.
And then I got it. "My sister?"
Well, it made sense. Kelly was a techie too. And kind of blunt. In fact, I could almost hear the wedding bells.
"You must have her number already, from the system," I said.
"Yeah, but all my exes say I'm really bad on the phone. It's why I invented Palavatar. It was only intended for me, but you rang our number when I was trying to see if it would generate calls from my sister."
"Your sister recommended Palavatar to me?"
"No, it was on auto-reply when you rang. Palavatar recommended itself."
I was getting travel sick. I needed solid ground.
"So who was the woman I spoke to about setting up the system?"
"That's my mother. I mean, that's her voice. But it was Palavatar really. See, the really beautiful thing about it is—"
"Okay! Okay! I'll phone Kelly," I said. I could sense that he was going to get technical really fast.
So I dialled my sister there and then. I told her the situation. Then I put her on with him.
All his exes were right. He was terrible on the phone: ten minutes later he was still gabbling on to her about the potential for auto-call generation in the age of the videophone. And she was gabbling back.
When they got on to talking about fuzzy databases for MPEG webcam-grabs I decided enough was enough. Plus I could hear moans of appreciation from Kelly's side of the conversation.
Third-party phone sex has never been my thing.
But talking of phone sex . . .
Just as I got back to my apartment my cell phone rang.
I looked at the screen to see who was ringing me.
The screen said JENNA CALLING.
Good old me, always good to hear from her.
My stomach did that thing it had taken to doing, each time her name came up on my phone.
"Hi," I said.
"Hi," said a warm voice, with a good sense of humour. And no ties to speak of, apart from with me. "Are you in the mood for—"
See, when Ray scooted out of my apartment that morning after our first date and left his cell phone, it was because he'd picked up my cell phone by mistake. So when he realised his mistake he rang his cell phone from mine and apologised for his less-than-stellar performance the night before.
"Yeah, I noticed that," I said, still cross he'd gone to sleep. But sort of admiring his bravery for bringing it up. And, to be honest, rather liking his shrewdness in noticing that I hadn't been swinging from the chandelier with joy.
"Will you let me buy you dinner again?" he said.
I told him I was a modern woman, not a pet. I could buy my own dinner, thank you very much.
"In that case," he said, persisting in a likeable way, "will you let me let you buy me dinner?"
I spent twenty seconds sorting out the grammar of that offer.
"Would that be something you'd be interested in?" he said, tentatively.
The last time I'd answered yes to that question I'd got in all sorts of trouble.
On the other hand, he had a warm voice, a good sense of humour, we'd had a good time on the phone and at dinner, and he'd noticed that I hadn't even come close to orgasm the night before and that is a rare gift, I'm telling you, so . . .
"Yes," I said.
And yes, we had oral pleasure on my couch afterwards.
And yes, Ray knew the merits of not getting too technical too quickly.
Moving swiftly on.
We dated for a few months.
I finally bit the bullet and introduced Ray and Abbie, who after several hours of awkward conversational false starts found they shared a passion for cricket, of all godforsaken things. But it keeps them happy at social occasions.
And at least cricket was a step up on Ray and Kelly, who were still having hours of awkward false starts trying to find the faintest interest they had in common.
In the end it got too painful.
"Hey," I said to them. "You have me in common."
Kelly's eyes went wide.
"God, that's beautiful!" she said. Then she went and found Abbie and told him what I'd said.
"God, that's beautiful!" he said, understanding instantly.
I didn't, of course.
The joint paper they published on the new discovery wasn't any help, to be honest, but after several evenings of explanation with diagrams on crumpled-up napkins, and stacked-up chess boards representing N-dimensional something or other, they said that—
Or we could just cut to the chase.
In their joint paper they noted that people, as well having interests in common, can also have friends and family in common, who aren't represented in Jenna Space, as they call it.
I'm not just a Set, I'm also a Space.
I try to stay humble.
But—funnily enough—my boyfriend is one of the few men in the world who can keep me humble.
Because, wouldn't you know it, there's such a thing as Ray Space now, where people are defined not by their interests but by people they know.
"Of course," said Kelly, "if you're a Kevin Bacon fan you might know some of this stuff already." As if that explained everything.
But, apparently, Kelly and Abbie have added some new twists, because there's also such a thing as Negative Jenna Space, in which you're defined by all the things you find horrifically boring or obnoxious—like motor racing, in my case—and there's also Negative Ray Space which is pretty much the same, but with cousins instead of cars.
The Negative Spaces are all terribly exciting, and it all makes perfect sense if you think of the set of actors who Kevin Bacon refuses to work with.
Or I'm told that it all makes sense, if you think of that.
I smile nicely and try not to let on that I don't quite understand where Kevin Bacon comes into things, although he was very fine in Stir of Echoes which is highly recommended if you like very spooky horror films in which cute boy actors go around with their shirts off.
Ray, on the other hand, likes spooky horror films in which cute girl actors go around with their shirts off.
He's rather mannish, in that respect.
And that, finally, is our secret.
We have similar interests, but not identical.
And yes, I mentioned that idly to Kelly and Abbie, who got all excited and started measuring frequencies of average Jenna Space interest-distances in all the couples they knew. There's an optimum range of values, apparently, which Abbie and Kelly call the Hot Spot, and—wouldn't you know—Ray and I fall bang smack in the middle with a score of 1.772, which is now the JennaRay Number and means that our relationship is enshrined forever in psycho-socio-mathematical law.
"Is that better than being married?" I said to Kelly and Abbie. "I mean, it sounds very pleasing and solid, but is that bond stronger or weaker than—"
Their eyes went wide.
"God, that's beauti—"
I covered my ears and started singing to myself so I couldn't hear them.
A girl can spark off too many mathematical papers, you know.
It can get kind of wearing.
But when Kelly wrestled my hands from my ears and stopped me singing she was breathless and excited but not about maths at all.
"Let's all get married!" she said. "The four of us! A double wedding!"
"But no maths," I said, wanting to take a stand before I said yes. After all, I didn't want to find I was vowing to uphold the value of pi or anything.
"No maths at all," she said. "Although of course we'll seat the guests by minimising the distance between neighbours in Ray Space and Jenna Space, while maximising their Negative Ray Space and Negative Jenna Space distances."
"What does that mean?" I said.
"That means Cousin Steven sits with the caterers," said Abbie.
And that decided it.
Though of course I hadn't, technically, asked Ray to marry me yet.
So I waited for an opportune moment. A trip to Paris, say, or a walk along a starlit beach. But as we showed no sign of doing either of those things in the next few hours—and as I'm impatient—I chomped down on the bullet and selected the next most opportune moment.
That evening we were sitting on my couch, after oral pleasure. Of the ice-cream variety.
I idly brought up the subject of marriage and watched him closely for signs of falling off the couch in shock and fear.
He remained admirably vertical.
"Marriage?" he said.
"Would . . . would that be something you are interested in?" I said.
"Yes," he said, with a big soppy smile. He kissed me. I kissed him back.
Then I looked round for orchestras and fireworks and happy couples on gondolas, applauding, like they always do in movies when the leads get engaged, but as we were alone in my apartment there was a shortage of those sorts of things.
So instead we clinked our spoons in a celebratory manner, and finished off the rest of the ice cream.
Then we switched off every phone in the house and went to bed.
And then we tried to reduce to zero the distance between Jenna Space and Ray Space.
Which, according to a forthcoming joint paper by a certain couple, is mathematically impossible.
But, what do you know, we just did great.